3D Printing in the Classroom — Who Cares?

We're excited to bring you this blog post by our Director of Education, David D. Thornburg, PhD.

I've chatted with lots of teachers over the years and now that 3D printers are becoming commonplace in many classrooms, a major complaint has emerged: “We got a printer for our class and after the kids made key chains, we didn't know what to do next, so we don't use it anymore."

This challenge is so commonplace that I thought I should address it. My view is that any technological tool used in education needs to be evaluated on the basis of its curricular connection. Just because something is new and flashy doesn't mean that it should be brought into classrooms. This applies to computers, tablets and other devices, including 3D printers.

In the realm of 3D printing (for example, in the STEAM fields), there are five tasks that form a sequence. These include background on the curricular topic, the design of the 3D parts for the project, the printing of the parts, their assembly into a finished artifact, and experimentation with the object to develop a deeper understanding of the topic. I show this as a loop because the cycle can repeat with embellishments for interesting projects.

Every one of these topics is important. Contrast this approach with one that involves simply downloading and printing designs stored on sites like Thingiverse. While such sites are useful for providing models of difficult-to-design parts, they pale in comparison with the learning that happens when students design projects on their own.

To illustrate the process, I'll show part of our STEAMtrax high school curriculum project on water turbines.


Hydroelectric power provides a significant percentage of the electricity used in the US. The topic of water turbines bridges physics, engineering and mathematics. It allows students to explore Newton's laws, electric power generation and other curricular topics.


After learning about the kinds of turbines used in hydroelectric dams, students are ready to design their own turbine for testing. While there are lots of design tools available (many of which are free), this project uses a free authoring environment called BlocksCAD. BlocksCAD has the advantage of being easy to learn, and for supporting the design of complex shapes.



Once the design of the various parts is completed, the finished designs need to be printed. In our case this includes the turbine wheel itself, the wheel holder, and the end caps placed on the wheel axle that also allow a small DC motor to be added as a generator.


The next step in the process is the assembly of the final system, including its connection to a voltmeter to show how much electricity is produced then the turbine wheel rotates.


Once the assembly is completed, the wheel is subjected to a stream of water and students can see how much electricity is produced by a water turbine they built themselves. This leads to some new questions. For example, our first wheel had eight blades. What would happen if we had six blades ― or ten?

Because our modeling language is parametric, changing blade designs is as easy as changing the value of one variable. This lets students print and try differenct wheel designs with ease. By using an inexpensive laser tachometer, wheel rotational speed can be measured with different water flow rates and comparisons can be made between wheels with different numbers of blades. Suddenly this activity has a strong math component that aligns nicely with existing standards.

From this point, you can go back to the Background step and launch an exploration of different kinds of turbine designs.

When viewed from this perspective, 3D printing is a powerful tool in education. Instead of presenting the curriculum in a linear lecture-driven format where it is quickly forgotten, students learn through the process of “constructionism” where the things they learn will stay with them a long time.

The approach I just described applies to the curricular materials we develop at Polar3D under the STEAMtrax name.

By all means, make a nice keychain if you want, but then please quickly move to curricular-based projects like those provided by STEAMtrax to transform the learning experience using 3D printers as the key technology to do things you simply couldn't do before.